Peace agreements have traditionally been seen as the cornerstone of peacekeeping. The United Nations Security Council usually calls for support for the implementation of peace agreements as one of the highest priorities in peacekeeping missions’ mandates. Peace agreements also featured prominently in the analysis of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), as it called for peace operations to recognize the “primacy of politics.”
But putting politics first does not have to mean putting peace agreements first. Instead, some former mission leaders and experts suggest a broader approach driven by an analysis of the interests and capacities of the stakeholders in a conflict. This can help a mission identify and act on drivers of violence that may be excluded from or overshadowed by a peace agreement. Using a stakeholder analysis as the starting point for political strategies can help peacekeeping missions respond in a more coherent and comprehensive way to security challenges.
There’s a reason that peace agreements are perceived as so central to peacekeeping: they are often the instrument that paves the way for a deployment of a peacekeeping mission in the first place. Peace agreements can be invaluable tools for peace operations tasked with supporting conflict transformation. They can help all stakeholders involved in signing the agreement or supporting the process understand their respective roles and responsibilities. They can bolster the mission’s legitimacy by ensuring that the mission’s work is linked to the vision of national stakeholders, and not just the preferences of the international community. They can provide the mission, the government, and other actors involved a clearer understanding about the objectives they are collectively trying to meet.
But peace agreements can also have considerable limitations. In a June roundtable co-hosted by the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research and the Stimson Center, several former heads of UN missions and other senior UN figures highlighted some of these challenges. For example, peace agreements may be signed by parties that have no intention of implementing their commitments, or contain unrealistic provisions beyond the parties’ capacity to implement.
Peace agreements may also exclude certain parties—e.g., those whose political views are too extreme or whose military capabilities don’t meet a certain threshold, or those who are not seen as sufficiently elite. They may omit certain issues, such as those that are seen as too local, too female, or not urgent enough. They might also create moral hazards, incentivizing excluded groups to use greater violence in order to receive the political and financial benefits accorded to parties to the peace process.
All of these limitations mean that a heavy emphasis on peace agreements can sometimes lock UN peace operations into frameworks that do not best serve the interests of conflict transformation. Focusing too narrowly on peace agreements may lead peace operations to miss opportunities for early action on violent conflicts whose actors or grievances were not included in the peace process. Even if the signatory parties to a peace agreement do uphold their commitments, that may not be enough to stop the violence if leaders do not have sufficient command and control over their forces. If the peace agreement stalls or falls apart, it can leave the mission in a tenuous position and without clear direction.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, experienced some of these challenges. After the signing of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali Resulting from the Algiers Process (“the Algiers Agreement”) in 2015, the Security Council made support for its implementation the highest priority in the mission’s mandate. The Algiers Agreement was intended primarily to halt fighting between two major coalitions of armed groups operating in northern Mali and the Malian government, and it has (so far) largely succeeded at that goal.
But the international community’s intense focus on the Algiers Agreement led many to miss the growing insecurity in central Mali. Non-governmental organizations and some mission personnel had raised concerns about the dynamics in central Mali in 2014 and 2015, but the mission’s leadership was mainly focused on the Algiers process, in line with their mandate, until early 2016. When MINUSMA tried to strengthen its efforts in the center, the Malian government resisted. The Security Council—particularly the penholder, France—could have pressured the government to accept MINUSMA’s support in central Mali, but it was reluctant to expend its political capital on that issue when it saw the Algiers Agreement as the primary focus for the mission.
It was not until 2019 that the Security Council instructed MINUSMA to treat both the implementation of the Algiers Agreement and the violence in the center as dual strategic priorities. By that time, it was too late to prevent the crisis. Violence against civilians in the center had skyrocketed and the conflict in central Mali had developed into a serious threat to Mali’s stability, ultimately contributing significantly to the recent coup.
To protect missions against these kinds of challenges, participants at the UNU-CPR and Stimson roundtable suggested that peace agreements should be supported but not overemphasized. The Security Council, the Secretariat, and mission leaders should not treat peace agreements as the foundation of a peacekeeping mission’s political strategy. Rather, they suggested using a stakeholder analysis as the starting point for developing a political strategy. This would include analysis of potential allies and spoilers to the peace, motivations and capacities of the perpetrators of violence, and local, national, and regional dynamics that drive violent conflict.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), MINUSCA, developed a political strategy in 2017 which modeled this approach. At the time, the mission was supporting an African Union-led political process called the African Initiative, aiming to broker an agreement between the CAR government and 14 major armed groups. MINUSCA’s leadership recognized that there were serious limitations to what the African Initiative could achieve in terms of stopping violence in CAR.
The 14 armed groups participating in the African Initiative had poor command and control over their members, and could not easily enforce a ceasefire. New armed groups had emerged which were not part of the African Initiative, and existing groups had fragmented; many of the groups perpetrating violence in CAR were driven more by economic predation than political goals. Localized violence had increased, including violence between different ethnic groups and violence linked to farmer-herder conflict, and these grievances and communities were not represented in the African Initiative. Unlike its approach in Mali, the Security Council had not made support for the African Initiative a specific priority for the mission in CAR. Instead, the Council had given the mission the strategic objective of reducing the threat and presence posed by armed groups, without specifically linking this objective to the African Initiative.
With this strategic priority in mind, MINUSCA’s leadership decided to develop its political strategy based on an analysis of the sources of violence in CAR. The mission asked who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, and what might influence their behavior. The mission then developed a strategy using the tools and capacities it had available to dissuade these actors from using violence. This included support to the African Initiative, but also a range of other measures to address major drivers of violence at the national level (such as the lack of representation within the CAR national security forces) and at the local level (such as community violence reduction initiatives, brokering local peace agreements, and engaging militarily against armed actors perpetrating violence against civilians). The stakeholder analysis ensured that these activities were undertaken in a coherent way, with a common purpose, while also allowing the mission to take a more comprehensive approach to violence in CAR, including by acting on issues that would not be addressed through the main peace process.
MINUSCA’s stakeholder analysis-driven political strategy offers a useful model for other peacekeeping mission leaders. Many peacekeeping missions in recent years have faced the challenge of stalled peace agreements, and the stakeholder analysis approach could offer a different way for mission leaders to find opportunities for influence even when the parties to the peace agreement seem unwilling to implement their commitments.
The Security Council could reinforce this approach by avoiding prescriptive mandate language that overemphasizes support for specific political processes or peace agreements. Instead, the Council could identify strategic objectives, leaving it to the mission leadership to determine how best to meet those objectives and how central a role the peace agreement should play. Embracing this stakeholder analysis-driven approach could help both the Security Council and mission leaders apply the HIPPO Report’s call for the “primacy of politics,” without limiting their efforts to the often-flawed frameworks of peace agreements.
Aditi Gorur is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program at the Stimson Center. This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.
 This roundtable was part of a joint initiative by UNU-CPR and Stimson to examine how peacekeeping missions’ political strategies are developed and what lessons can be learned about supporting the primacy of politics. Please see Adam Day, Aditi Gorur, Victoria K. Holt, and Charles T. Hunt, The Political Practice of Peacekeeping, UNU-CPR and Stimson Center, 2020.